My experience as a Salesian Lay Missioner began in Tijuana, Mexico where I picked up rudimentary Spanish, a little experience with Mexican culture and some basic Salesian principles. After three months there I seized an opportunity to work further south in a city called Leon. The Salesians in Leon have a three-phase project for boys and adolescents in need. The first stage is an overnight shelter for ninos de la calle (street children) which is called the patio. From the patio the boys can proceed to a more permanent home named after the section of Turin in which Don Bosco worked, Valdocco. Unlike those in the patio, the 25-35 boys in Valdocco do not return to the street each day. There in our big walled-in compound they eat, play and even go to a little school during a schedule that takes up the whole day. At night everyone sleeps in a big one-room. Older and more mature kids can pass on to La Ciudad del Nino (town of boys), a full-time Salesian boarding school.
When I arrived in Leon, I brought with me a bag of motives that would have been difficult for anybody, including me, to understand. In retrospect, I can see that for all my self-doubt and suspicion, I had two good reasons. I wanted to help kids who had no families, and I wanted to learn how to love Christ better. It turned out that that was enough.
It is easy to forget now how hard those first weeks in Leon were. I was assigned to Valdocco as asistente (assistant) to the priest who ran it. My responsibilities included anything that needed to be done in raising thirty boys who ranged from three to fifteen years old: waking them up every morning at 6:45, supervising them in the cafeteria, helping the besieged teacher in our school, playing in their ferocious soccer games, soliciting food donations at the downtown market and driving our orange school bus during outings. My liabilities as a first – time asistente were just short of overwhelming. I could barely speak enough Spanish to communicate with the boys or with my co-workers; I lacked the unflappable temperament needed for working with kids, especially ones as angry as these; and I was not used to being on duty all day long, all week long.
On top of all that there’s an unwritten rule in Valdocco that anyone entering our community has to be broken in for about a month or two. As a gringo who barely spoke the language and was slow to learn the ropes, I got the worst they had to give. In fact, for a long while after I arrived at Valdocco, I spent a lot of time, being angry and on the defensive. They were constantly making fun of me, ignoring what I asked of them, screaming in real or artificial tantrums, or fighting and bullying one another. The attention I gave them never seemed to have any effect. They would soak it up thanklessly and just expect more. The day I was first left alone to supervise all thirty kids is difficult to forget. For no good reasons, at least half of them climbed out a window of the school room onto the roof. From there they rained down on me bricks, brooms and a river of the most abusive epithets the Spanish language has to offer.
But I stuck with it and little by little things started to turn around. One day after about ten kids had finished reading stories in my room, my walkman was missing. I asked some of the boys about it and they all told me that Louis Gaona had stolen it. Louis Gaona was eleven and had spent the majority of his last two years in the street, where stealing is as natural as breathing. He was perhaps the smartest kid at Valdocco, but he was also one of the most aggressive and worst-behaved. A week before I had caught him putting my cassette into his backpack. This time, I took him aside, told him that my walkman was missing and asked him if he knew anything about it.
He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “I didn’t take it”.
“Okay, I am going to trust you,” I said, and I didn’t check his backpack to see if it was there.
“But,” he asked, “what will you give me if I find it for you?”
“Nothing” I responded.
A week passed and then one day Louis pulled me aside to ask, “What will you do to me if I tell you I stole your walkman?”
“I’ll have to think about that. I don’t know.”
“Well, I stole it.”
I was so happy for Louis that I gave him a hug and told him there would be no punishment. In that moment I think I turned a corner in my experience as a Salesian volunteer. So often an educator’s response to his children is guided by something other than pure concern for their welfare. For the first part of my experience at Valdocco, I looked to external sources to guide my work with the children: the example of the supervising priest, Don Bosco’s book on the preventive system, or my own abstract notions of what was fair. But in dealing with Louis I noticed that I did not look anywhere for guidance. I wasn’t consciously trying to be fair or to apply the preventive system or anything else. I just wanted to see Louis be the best that he could. That concern for him, and nothing else, had told me what to do. On some level I think he realized what my motive was, and that helped him bring back my walkman.
There is a passage in The Diary of Anne Frank where the thirteen-year old Anne talks about her isolation from her mother, sister, friends and everyone but her father. She writes of how much she wants him to love her, “not just because I am his daughter, but for myself.” Louis taught me that that was how I had to make my kids feel: loved not because I happened to have been assigned to Valdocco to look after them, but because I knew each of them and cared for them on their own account.
As my time at Valdocco went by, things got better and better. My Spanish reached a point where I could talk easily with the kids. When they misbehaved, I could call on our friendship, instead of threats of punishment, to get them to behave their best. The majority of them made noticeable progress during my time there. Three little brothers, who had come to Valdocco after defending their mother from the violent blows of their uncle, would not let anyone touch them when they first arrived. By the time I left they had begun to trust and open up to us. Another boy, whose picture was all over town as a runaway when he arrived, fought with everyone at first. By the time he left to live with his mother, he had grown so much that he was gently separating younger kids when he saw them fighting.
My time at Valdocco was a gift. I got to see the preventive system of Don Bosco work changes in boys who badly needed love and discipline. It changed me as well. I made real strides in my ability to see Christ in his less lovable children. I learned that I had to persevere in reaching out, even when there were no apparent results, when my children made me feel like a fool, when I was afraid of being rejected, and especially when I wanted some quiet time to myself. If I could get past all of that and care for my boys, then God would take over. He would guide me.
I was also blessed to see just how far I fall short of what God wants from me. Not only did I come to a clearer understanding of my limitations, but I had the chance to meet a few Salesians in whom Don Bosco’s passion for saving boys’ souls lives again. Alongside their unselfishness and commitment I saw how frail and faulty my own efforts had been. But instead of discouraging me, their example let me see how much better I could be.
A priest once approached Don Bosco to say that he wanted to work in his oratory. When Don Bosco asked him why he wanted to do this, the priest said that the work seemed important and it looked like help was needed. “You have come to the wrong place,” Don Bosco responded. “People come here to work with me because they want to become saints.”
The tedium and frustration of my volunteer experience seem trivial now. What comes forward with me are the memories of my boys and a deeper desire to live and help others live as Christ wants us to. If Don Bosco were to talk with his volunteers today, I know he would see a saint buried inside each of us. He would ask for, and we can rest with, nothing less.